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FRIDAY QUARTERBACK

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On the surface, this looks like one of the weakest slates of the season – only two games featuring two ranked opponents, at least one of them (LSU at Kentucky) seeming like a probably runaway. Get into it, though, and it’s one of the most crucial for conference positioning. Championships in December will be decided in very large part by the outcomes of these games:


Think we’re out of the Big 12 South race? IT AIN’T TRUE!
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Purdue at Michigan: Purdue comes in off its first loss, desperately needing a big win to keep confidence and pace; Michigan’s looking to make Illinois a crucial rubber match in a couple weeks.

Oklahoma State at Nebraska: Both teams have struggled but are still only 1-1 in the Big 12 and have at least two of their three respective division leaders in front of them.

LSU at Kentucky: KU doesn’t control its own destiny as it is, but its hopes are virtually shot with a second loss, even to a West team. To stay in the race with a loss here, the Wildcats would have to beat Georgia, Florida and Tennessee (not to mention Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, both currently sporting winning records) and hope South Carolina loses two of three against Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee. The two teams that actually control their own destiny in the East right now: USC and Tennessee. Everyone else needs some kind of help.

Wisconsin at Penn State: Elimination game; with losses to Illinois and Michigan, PSU might be done already.

Texas A&M at Texas Tech: A&M can remain in first at 3-0; Tech can move to 2-1 and keep pace with Oklahoma (with a win) and A&M (with a self-evident loss) and possibly OSU, if the Cowboys win in Lincoln.

Georgia at Vanderbilt: Loser moves to last place in the division is all but mathematically eliminated from the title race with a third conference loss.

Missouri at Oklahoma: OU already has one loss and could fall two games back in the case of an A&M win; Missouri’s trying to keep pace while earning some respect and a little margin of error with Kansas and Colorado coming down the line.

Auburn at Arkansas: With LSU still to come, Auburn can hang on to control of its own destiny. The Hogs might already be done, but are officially finished if they fall to 0-3.

East Carolina at UTEP: UTEP, incredibly is the only undefeated team remaining in C-USA play besides Rice, which is terrible and will immediately lose to whomever it is playing (Houston) because said team will not give the game away one air-mailed interception at a time and try to raise your crushed dreams with a spirited comeback that ends in yet another, emotionally cataclysmic turnover in the final minute. Rice sucks to its core and this must be proven. Anyway, match-up of division leaders.

Colorado at Kansas State: CU enters in first place, on a roll with Kansas and Missouri in front of it; K-State needs win to keep pace with loss already to KU.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly disappointing about that (except Oklahoma State-Nebraska and Penn State-Wisconsin and of course Michigan, but you know. Beggars can’t be choosers).

Onwards...

Finally, We’ll Learn About...
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UConn hits its first worthy opponent of the year, at 5-1 Virginia, but one of the day’s most interesting rubber matches is in the Big 12 North, where Kansas State (Texas) and Colorado (Oklahoma) each have one big win to their name to accompany respectable but very much earned losses (Auburn/Kansas and Arizona State/Florida State, respectively). Both feel like contenders in the conference, but both are still sitting on the possibility that the breakthrough win was something of a fluke. Colorado, currently 2-0 in the league, would still be technically fine with a loss, but the loser here is dismissed from the division race until it makes another bold step to prove otherwise.

Most to Gain
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Missouri stock soared last week – perhaps on the rising value of opening week victim Illinois as much as the Tigers’ gruesome smackdown against sudden fifth-place favorite Nebraska – and will hit a 57-year high if Mizzou can win in Norman, where Oklahoma is riding a 13-game win streak. This is Missouri’s road record against non-losing teams under Gary Pinkel, including mid-majors:

2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 TOTAL
Wins: 0 1 0 1 0 0 - 2
Losses: 3 4 2 2 2 2 - 15

The two wins: over 6-6 Texas A&M in double overtime in 2002 and over 7-5 Iowa State in 2004. Missouri is still just Missouri until that changes.

Most to Lose
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The Pac Ten has always been a wild, parity-driven league, and Cal and Arizona State each have few upset skeletons in their closet. Visiting Oregon State and Washington are softies in record only, and I looked at the Huskies especially hard as a potential upset reach. Neither the Bears nor Devils have the Teflon USC does in the polls: one letdown by either, and undefeated, mythical championship dreams turn instantly to dust.

...AND ALL THE CHILDREN LEARNED TO MULTIPLY BY SEVEN...
In the miserable realm of blowouts and other morbid curiosities.
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Inevitable Massacre of the Week
The biggest line of the week belongs by far to Ohio State (-31) against Kent State, but the best bet in destruction is in Kansas, where the Jayhawks have not hesitated in pouring hot scoreboard oil all over its vanquished opponents during a 5-0 start. A brief reprieve from the pounding to beat Kansas State last week, and back to the blowout series Saturday against Baylor. The Bears are not as bad as KU’s first four hapless victims, but the 24-point line might need to edged up. Just a smidge.

Buffalo Line Watch
Since it joined Division I-A in 1999, Buffalo has been favored to win just once, against Temple to open the 2006 season. This week, after waxing Ohio U. 31-10 for its second win of the season...BUFFALO IS FAVORED TO WIN!!!! HALLELUJAH, BROTHERS AND SISTERS!! SPREAD THE GOOD WORD!!! TELL IT FAR AND WIDE!

And the Lord said! That the Bulls would be! A 2.5 to 4.5-point favorite over Toledo! HA! Even though that’s kinda weird! Because Toledo is historically much better than Buffalo and has won two of its last three including a win over Iowa State! PRAISE HIS NAME!!

Lame Game of the Week
The worst, Jerry.
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Louisiana-Monroe earned its first win of the season last week, a balanced, 31-13 victory over Arkansas State after being outscored by 25 points per game in its first four. That makes the War Hawks clear and substantial favorites over 0-5 North Texas, which dropped last week’s "Lame Game" to the other UL (Lafayette) and has now been outscored by an average of 32. The Mean Green have as good a chance as any here to escape the winless cellar currently occupied only by UNT, Colorado State, Florida International and Utah State.

WE CAN REBUILD. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY.
Bouncing back.
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Rutgers: Nothing could be nicer for the reeling Knights after two straight home losses than Syracuse, even in the Carrier Dome. Ray Rice should top 100 before the half, if he gets the chance.
Texas: With or without killer instinct, Longhorns have no excuse for falling flat again at Iowa State, site of victories by Kent State and Northern Iowa.
USC: It’s a good sign if the Trojans come out blazing against Arizona, which is ripe to be blazed. A lackluster rebound off a shattering loss indicates complacency, not regaining focus.
Houston: Please please please just knock Rice from that ‘1-0’ column on top of the C-USA West. Okay? Thanks!
TCU: Reeling a bit after the departure of Tommy Blake, but just good enough to keep Stanford from thinking it’s actually any good.
Southern Miss: God help them, if USM falls to 1-2 in the conference with back-to-back losses to Rice and SMU, it is going to get really ugly around that program. I don’t know who the quarterback will be, but he has to be able to beat SMU. Doesn’t he? Yes, yes, of course, he does...he...crap.

Upwards...


Running? Passing? You're screwed either way.
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GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK!
Missouri at Oklahoma

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What’s at Stake: As much as Missouri has on the line here (see above, plus Kansas right beside the Tigers in the standings), Oklahoma is the team here just trying to keep pace in its division: a loss and a Texas A&M win would drop OU two games back of the Aggies, from whence it would no longer control its own destiny for the Big 12 championship, as it still does right now and would continue to do so with a win. Any national ambitions are still distant and should be sublimated in the name of maintaining position to win the conference.
Missouri Wants: There was nothing unusual about what Missouri did last week: Mizzou is averaging 557 yards and 42 points per game, and Nebraska’s defense hasn’t done anything all season to suggest it’s even an average unit, much less above. So there may be some lingering questions about the Tigers’ ability to move the ball against an elite defense (which Oklahoma’s, in the top 11 nationally in rushing, total and scoring D, certainly has been most of the time), I’d be surprised if Missouri didn’t come out gunning the spread option as hard and fast as it could go. This will be easily the most balanced, big play-oriented attack the Sooners will face the rest of the season; Missouri averages 357 per game passing while still running for 200, which is really staggering, and it will benefit from an aggressive approach that gets OU on its heels early, guessing and a step slow on its assignments. Chase Daniel is not a deep ball gunslinger, but he is a first rate athlete and decision-maker when the offense is going downhill and a more consistent passer than Brad Smith – it’s pretty much a given he’s going to make some big plays against any defense. Oklahoma also had some obvious breakdowns against Texas tight ends last week, and faces a better (and better-utilized) pair here in Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman.

Defensively, Sam Bradford hasn’t proven he can win without the benefit of a strong supporting running game that helps open up the slants, hitches and other safe, intermediate passes the freshman’s made a killing on to date. Colorado managed to take away the run and reaped the benefit of three interceptions.
Oklahoma Wants: The Sooners pounded Missouri into submission last year in Columbia, moving in front 16-3 in the first half and wearing out the clock with Allen Patrick and Jacob Gutierrez, who between them carried 46 times for 203 yards. Nothing spectacular – the longest OU run of the game was 15 yards, and the longest reception just 18 – but the Sooners held the ball for more than 36 minutes and never let Daniel get into a rhythm on the other side. Playing from behind, Daniel was picked off three times and Missouri’s running backs only carried seven times in the loss. Nothing is really different this time around, except that Missouri’s defense is younger and possibly less likely to stop OU with a better passer under center. Oklahoma wants to pound away with its big offensive line and go on sustained drives that effectively cut the running game out of Missouri’s offense and lessen Daniel’s chances to turn the game into a real shootout.
Constants: Everything for Missouri runs through Daniel: he’s the runner, he’s the passer, he’s the leader. He’d catch passes and block for himself if was possible. The Tigers’ fate is completely tied to his accuracy on the road ... Oklahoma’s offensive line is massive and has worn out five of the first six defenses it’s seen (with the exception of Colorado). Things are much easier for Sam Bradford when his backs are forcing the defense to focus on the run first, and still can’t do anything about it.
Variables: Missouri has an underexposed all-purpose/return guy, freshman Jeremy Maclin, who averages 15 yards every time he touches the ball (including 11 per carry on 16 runs) and has six touchdowns, two of them on punt returns. He can change a game in a couple seconds ... Ditto DeMarco Murray, who was fairly bottled up against Texas before his game-breaking 65-yard run in the fourth quarter. Allen Patrick and Chris Brown can pound, but Murray is the dimension OU lacked last year.
The Pick: The closer I look at Missouri, the more respect it commands, but the Tigers are still very much in a "prove it" position coming into this game: in light of Nebraska’s constant struggles, Mizzou’s big win is a squeaker against Illinois (compared to Oklahoma’s annhilation of Miami), and though it hasn’t slipped the way Oklahoma did at Colorado, it also hasn’t faced a defense anywhere near the Sooners’ caliber and hasn’t won a road game of any real significance in ages. I really like Daniel’s versatility and get the feeling we may be in for a hell of a show from the Tiger offense, but this is firm "believe it when you see it" territory.

Oklahoma 34 Missouri 29

5-3 ATS, 4-2 AS A DD HOME DOG, IT'S SMQ'S DOUBLE BARRELL GOLDEN ROCK SOLID BARKING DOG OF THE WEEK!!
If it were completely logical, it wouldn't be an upset.
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The Game: Oklahoma State at Nebraska
The Line: Nebraska by 3.5-4.0.
Conventional Wisdom: Oklahoma State struggles as a road team: the Cowboys are 2-10 in road games under Mike Gundy (one of the wins coming at Florida Atlantic), including 0-3 this year at Georgia, Troy and Texas A&M. Seriously struggles as a road team.
The Pick: Trends like "2-10 on the road" concern me less than trends like "allows 442 yards per game," which is kind of generous to Nebraska’s defense, seeing that includes the paltry 185 Nevada managed in the opener; in five games since, the average is 493 and 33 points. This against Ball State and Iowa State? No, Nebraska is not Nebraska, not as we know it, and it has not stopped run or pass in any fashion in a solid month. OSU’s breakout game last year was a 41-point, 498-yard barrage against the Huskers in Stillwater, and its offensive talent carries the day here, on the road, against the fastest-sinking ship in the Big 12.

Oklahoma State 36 Nebraska 27


Thought I’d get this in before you get too sick of it Saturday. Too late?
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LSU at Kentucky
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Andre Woodson is probably the best pure passing quarterback in the country at the moment, so it would be rash to suggest he’s not going to make LSU pay for aggressive blitzing a time or two Saturday. But how Kentucky has a chance to win this game, I just don’t see it. It will help if Rafael Little is healthy, because I though Florida had good success stringing drives together by mixing the run and pass in the first half last week. Kentucky’s offensive line, though, is not Florida’s by any means, and Kentucky’s defense is not even in the same stratosphere (actually, there is only one stratosphere; but Kentucky and Florida’s defenses are on the opposite ends of it). Woodson may make a few plays early, before the pocket begins to consistently collapse on him, but rest assured, a la South Carolina last week, it will collapse. In the meantime, LSU is developing an identity as a power running team, an identity it solidified in the second half against Florida last week, and Kentucky doesn’t have the manpower defensively to hold the Tigers down if they commit to the run. The only way LSU is in trouble here is in the case of a possible letdown or exhaustion or, more likely, if Jimbo Fisher Gary Crowton plays around with his toys without any kind of focus for too long (mind warp. Now I know how Lou Holth feels). All of those scenarios seem less likely than a physical beatdown.
LSU 31 Kentucky 18

Texas A&M at Texas Tech
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In evenly matched games like this one, I’ll be honest: I have no trouble making a thoroughly biased pick for arbitrary reasons such as ‘likability.’ It’s not that it’s difficult to justify Texas Tech over A&M: the Raiders have been a much better team in Big 12 play in Lubbock, are rolling up ungodly passing stats, and frankly have owned the Aggies in Mike Leach’s tenure; Leach’s teams have won five of the last six against TAMU (the one loss in overtime in 2004) and are 3-0 at home by an average margin of four touchdowns. Nobody who watched A&M try to cover a dramatically more pedestrian controlled passing game at Miami could defend its defense against the Raiders’ well-oiled point machine. All of that is true. But the first thing I think of in this game? I adore Mike Leach, and I detest Dennis Franchione. Get well soon, Mike!

Texas Tech 44 Texas A&M 31

Auburn at Arkansas
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Argh. This is one I had figured out and locked down as much as any competitive game can be for the Razorbacks, even after their back-to-back stumbles against Alabama and Kentucky, largely due to Auburn’s South Florida-Mississippi State QB meltdown. Brandon Cox has done everything right since to destroy that certainty. And as tempting as it is to reduce this to McFadden/Jones vs. Cox, I have less faith now in Arkansas’ run defense to put the game on the quarterback, and Cox has always been at his best when the running game opens up play-action downfield. Alabama and Kentucky both took it to the Razorbacks’ front seven, and Auburn is good enough and on enough of a roll to pound out a win in the same fashion, attempting to hold the ball and contain big plays with its very good defense on the other side. Casey Dick isn’t doing Arkansas any favors.

Auburn 22 Arkansas 18

Wisconsin at Penn State
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There isn’t much good to say about either of these teams at the moment, and what there is, it amounts to a strength-on-strength scenario: Wisconsin can still run the ball, Penn State can still stop the run. Wisconsin most definitely cannot stop anyone right now, having allowed ghastly averages in consecutive weeks to Javon Ringer and Rashard Mendenhall, and neither senior quarterback is very fearsome; Anthony Morelli has thrown five picks in his last two games and Tyler donovan has thrown four. These are old school offenses, and success is a matter almost exclusively who can get going more quickly and keep going more consistently, P.J. Hill or Rodney Kinlaw. Kinlaw had a career game against Iowa, but the Hawkeyes are a certifiably terrible, lame duck outfit at the moment. Hill has steadily rolled against a string of iffy defenses his own self. Penn State is a completely different sort of offense, but if its offensive line does to Wisconsin what Michigan State’s and Illinois’ have the last two weeks, the Lions should run the ball and win. There’s no quick fix for that kind of generosity.

I have zero confidence in this prediction.

Penn State 20 Wisconsin 17

Colorado at Kansas State
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Something’s gotten into Colorado the last three weeks, and it would be easy to say, "Yeah, Miami Ohio and Baylor" if those games didn’t sandwich a solid win over what was and is by all appearances one of the best four or five teams in the country. For what it was, the CU offense has exploded: the Buffs were a complete wreck with the ball last year and opened up the first three games this year averaging just 271 with 20 points combined in losses to Arizona State and Florida State. And suddenly – whoosh! – the running game is clicking, three games straight, dominating time of possession, and Cody Hawkins is chipping in with 274 per over the last four. The defense was called into question last week by giving up 410 passing to Baylor, but that was against 60 passes and followed three sensational efforts prior to that against Florida State, Miami (Ohio) and Oklahoma. Kansas State has been generally good, but average by comparison, especially given the Cats’ defensive problems last week and their consistent failure to establish a running game on offense – Colorado is playing as well right now as any team in the Big 12, and perfectly positioned to make me look like an idiot for noticing.

Colorado 28 Kansas State 20

Purdue at Michigan
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Purdue’s offense was all the rage, again, until it rolled up into a little ball against a real defense, again, and now it cannot get the benefit of the doubt at Michigan. The Wolverines seemed to have solved their most pressing problems with a nice combination of personnel changes and more conservative offenses with immobile quarterbacks. Purdue is not conservative, but Curtis Painter is not very mobile, and the Boilers’ defense has no hope of stopping Mike Hart, at any rate. This score might look close if Michigan just rides Hart on into oblivion, but it probably doesn’t have to be.

Michigan 23 Purdue 13

Connecticut at Virginia
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For an undefeated team in mid-October, we know nothing about UConn, nothing at all, except that it’s played great statistically great defense (4th nationally in total and scoring) and probably should have lost to Temple. There’s not much to recommend the Huskies offensively, and even less, actually, to recommend Virginia when it has the ball. Whatever cachet accompanies the Cavaliers’ win over Georgia Tech is negated by its horror show performance at Wyoming and too-close-for-comfort wins over North Carolina and Middle Tennessee State, by two points apiece. UVA’s offense seems to rely very much on the talents of Cedric Peerman, who rattled off four straight big games in wins before going down last week and taking the rest of the Cavs’ production with him. If Peerman plays, I go with Virginia. But it looks like he’s not playing so I go in the most tentative sense possible with UConn.

Connecticut 21 Virginia 18

Georgia Tech at Miami
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The Jackets are all but mathematically eliminated from the ACC Coastal race after three losses in four games and can take care of the math by going ahead and getting squashed in the OB. I mean, they could do that, but here we run into one of those dread "feeling" games, which in this case is a nod to the refusal of Chan Gailey Equilibrium to go down without a fight. Tech has taken two in a row over the Canes, including a defensive slog over a Kyle Wright-led offense in Miami in 2005, and Tech has maintained the one element of its success that we know can rattle Wright: pressure. Tech is second nationally in sacks and first in tackles for loss. Some of that has to do with planting Notre Dame way back when, of course, but few defenses keep the pressure on like Jon Tenuta’s, and few quarterbacks respond as poorly in those conditions as Wright. Well, that’s not true, actually, lots of quarterbacks respond poorly under pressure, including Taylor Bennett, who has been sacked more times this season than any other quarterback in the country. But Wright seems to define the category, along with fellow fifth-year senior Brandon Cox. Tech leads the ACC in rushing and needs to establish Tashard Choice to protect Bennett.

Georgia Tech 21 Miami 16

Someday your draft will come.
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Louisville at Cincinnati
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It would have been inconceivable a month ago that things could have changed so radically by midseason that UL would be a double-digit underdog against Cincinnati, but here we are. And the Cardinals still can’t cover anybody. I feel very badly for Brian Brohm, who will be picked off here.
Cincinnati 32 Louisville 28

Tennessee at Mississippi State
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MSU should play defense well enough to keep itself in this game well into the second half, but eventually its lo-fi, one-dimensional offense will be the Bulldogs’ doom. If Tennessee actually found something sustainable last week, it’s lights out.

Tennessee 27 Mississippi State 13

Washington at Arizona State
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I toyed with the upset possibilities here, as one must where Jake Locker is concerned, but I’m not willing to pull the trigger: for one, I was dead wrong trying to catch the Devils sleeping against Oregon State three weeks ago, and ASU is still doing everything well - the Devils have succeeded running, passing and across the board defensively. The close win last week might scare a few people into running with U-Dub, but I still count the Huskies too one-dimensional until Locker develops into a reliable passer (he’s 104th in efficiency) to pull this off on the road.

Arizona State 30 Washington 21

Georgia at Vanderbilt
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The ol’ vengeance game, aka the "Stop Our Season From Spiraling Out of Control After a Shocking Blowout Loss" game. Vanderbilt, 3-2 record and projections of competence notwithstanding, is still the team for that; Vandy’s three wins are against Richmond, Ole Miss and Eastern Michigan. Alabama and Auburn trounced the Commodores like, well, like they’re the Commodores. Georgia needs this and shouldn’t be complacent.

Georgia 27 Vanderbilt 12

Indiana at Michigan State
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Indiana is playing well offensively, but was severely gashed on the ground in its only loss, to Illinois. I promise, if MSU will give the ball to Javon Ringer, it will win: kid’s averaging double digit carries two weeks in a row as a starter, but only has 22 carries combined in losses to Wisconsin and Northwestern as coaches go to the air and to short-yardage battering ram/genocide survivor Jehuu Caulcrick.. Give Javon the ball! Indiana can’t stop him.

Michigan State 36 Indiana 28

Boston College at Notre Dame
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For reasons articulated earlier in the week, I don’t think Notre Dame’s win at UCLA tells us the first thing about an Irish resurgence or anything like it, and the secondary is poised to be bombed by one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country. Boston College might be beginning to look at its schedule and develop mythical championship ambitions, which is premature, but if so, it should be aiming for a large blowout here. This is not the time, place, or opponent to look vulnerable. I have sense Notre Dame will put up some fight at home. For a while.

Boston College 33 Notre Dame 10

Don't forget to stop by tomorrow morning, Gameday-ish, for the new SMQ tradition, the natioal open thread. It went swimmingly last week, if I do say so myself – there was lots to chat and gasp and thread about, obviously – so the bar has been set. Let's see if we can raise it a few notches.